Got Criminal Ancestors? How to Investigate Their Crimes

Lydia thinks her great-grandfather was murdered–perhaps even by her grandfather! Here’s some advice for her and everyone researching “cold cases” for criminal ancestors on your family tree.

Cold Case investigate your ancestor criminals

I heard recently from Lydia with these intriguing questions:

My great great grandpa William John Gabriel Nelson disappeared one day, never coming home from work. It was family lore that he had been “shanghai’d.” But even as a child the story didn’t add up. [Through a] few other mentions of the account throughout the years, and recently reconnecting with cousins through Ancestry.com/DNA and your advice to just email DNA matches, I have a growing reason to believe my great-grandfather was murdered. An even bigger fear is that my grandfather may have been the one to do it.
 

All parties involved with this are now dead, so follow-up is impossible with them. But I’m wondering about contacting the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) or the library to determine if indeed there was a cold case, missing persons report or John Doe. Since this happened in the mid 1940’s, would I contact the LAPD or is this now a job for a historian?

As a citizen, Lydia can certainly contact the LAPD here. It might take a bit of persistence to get to the right person or resource. I would start by asking for how you can find out the status of a cold case from the year in question.

Here are 4 ways to follow up on your own criminal ancestors’ cold cases:

1. Look for cold case files online.

As I often say, all good searches start online because they will help you prepare to go offline. In other words, not everything is online, but searching online first will give you a lay of the land, revealing what is available, who to contact, and where to go in person. Start with a Google search such as LAPD cold cases.  The search results include several good leads:

cold case search

With a case like Lydia’s that is over 70 years old, I wouldn’t expect to pull it up in an online database (though you never know!) But I do see several sites here that provide phone numbers to gain access to those who can lead you in the right direction.

2. Search Google for clues.

Google Drive and other tipsUse Google’s powerful search technology to look for online mentions of the names, places, and dates of your particular case.

In Lydia’s case, she might begin with keywords relating to her great-grandfather’s disappearance, with his name, year, and the place he was last seen. Including descriptive keywords such as disappear, mystery, vanished or murder might also yield helpful results.

Learn more about effective search techniques in my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Second Edition.

3. Check old newspapers.

Newspapers in your ancestor’s hometown (or further afield) may have mentioned the incident. With a common name like William (or Bill) Nelson, you may need to weed out the overabundance of unwanted results you get. Let me show you how I did this in GenealogyBank, a popular genealogical newspaper website:
genealogybank initial search
The initial results of searching GenealogyBank (above) for the terms William Nelson and Los Angeles brought up over 1,000 search results! (The red arrow points to the tally.) Since I don’t like wasting valuable research time on irrelevant results (who’s with me?!), I refined the search. I specified Nelson as a last name, William as a first name, Los Angeles as a keyword, and I added a date range: the decade during which he disappeared. Next, I limited my search to Los Angeles-area newspapers, shown below:
genealogybank refine search
This search narrows results down to under 200: a robust number, but at least manageable to look through for relevant material.
I want to be able to use these same search parameters in the future, so I click Save My Search. The search now appears in My Folder for future reference.
newspaper research at GenealogyBank

4. Look for criminal records.

If you knew (or suspected) that a relative was prosecuted for a crime, it’s time to start looking for records relating to the criminal case. There may be several kinds:

  • In cases of suspicious death (where there was a body, unlike Lydia’s case), look for any surviving coroner’s records.
  • If a trial may have occurred, research the jurisdiction to find out what court would have handled it, and then look for files relating to the case.
  • If an ancestor may have served time, look for prison records. Genealogy Gems Premium podcast episode 29 is devoted to the topic of prison records.

 

Get inspired!

Read this article about a woman who was researching not one but two mysterious deaths on her family tree.

 

Want to help investigators lay to rest their own cold cases?

Click here to read about the Unclaimed Persons Project and how you can help.

Unclaimed Persons Project

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

Here’s our weekly roundup of interesting and new genealogy records online for Brazil, Denmark, England, Ireland and the U.S.

BRAZIL CIVIL REGISTRATIONS. Over 200,000 indexed records have been added to a free collection of Pernambuco, Brazil civil registrations (1804-2014) at FamilySearch.org.

DENMARK DEEDS AND MORTGAGES. FamilySearch.org has added nearly 3 million digitized images to its collection of browsable deeds and mortgages for South Jutland, Denmark (1572-1928).

ENGLAND COURT. Ancestry subscribers now have access to a new collection of Yorkshire, England, Quarter Session Records, 1637-1914(1637-1914). According to the database description, these courts “had both a civil and a criminal jurisdiction, and before 1888 they also had an administrative function. Civil cases usually appear in the court’s order books and criminal cases in the indictment books.”

ENGLAND PROBATE. New Yorkshire, England, Probate Records, 1521-1858 are now available to Ancestry subscribers. These include wills, letters of administration and inventories.

ENGLAND TAX. About a quarter million land records are now included in FindMyPast’s database of Devon, Plymouth & West Devon Land Tax and Valuation Records 1897-1949. Use these to learn about an ancestor’s residence, property ownership and wealth.

IRELAND PARISH RECORDS. Ancestry has posted an Ireland, Catholic Parish Registers, 1655-1915 from the National Library of Ireland. Access to this index is already free on Findmypast.

U.S. – AFRICAN-AMERICAN. About 35,000 indexed records and associated images have been added to a free collection of Freedmen’s Bureau marriages (1861-1872) at FamilySearch.org.

U.S. – ILLINOIS MARRIAGE. Nearly 200,00 total indexed marriage records for Illinois have been added to FamilySearch.org across three collections: church marriages, 1805-1985; civil marriages, 1833-1889 and county marriages, 1810-1934.

U.S. – MARYLAND CHURCH. A new collection of nearly 140,000 free, indexed records from a variety of Maryland churches (1668-1995) has been added to FamilySearch.org.

U.S. WAR OF 1812. 1.3 million indexed records have been added to a free United States War of 1812 Index to Service Records at FamilySearch.org.

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How to Download Backblaze in 4 Easy Steps

Download BackblazeDon’t be intimidated by signing up for Backblaze, the cloud-based computer backup service I recommend.
Here’s how to download Backblaze in four easy steps. Protecting genealogy data, family photos, and other files is essential!

I was pretty startled when I discovered that the cloud backup service I used to use wasn’t backing up my video files! That was a deal-breaker for me. So, after reviewing other cloud backup service options, I chose Backblaze. I’m really glad I did. Backblaze runs 24/7 through my internet connection and is constantly saving changes I make to every file. That means if my computer is lost, stolen, destroyed, or hit with deadly viruses, I’ll always have copies of my files and that even includes my large video files!

Genealogy Gems Premium website member Kathy felt a little intimidated about downloading BackBlaze for the first time:

“I received your e-mail yesterday with all the helpful information. I remember you mentioning Backblaze in previous e-mails, and I looked up their website and read the information I could find. However, it did not show the download steps, so I could not tell how difficult it would be and if it would ask me really hard questions that I would not know how to answer during backup, so I didn’t subscribe.

I have had a few external hard drives with backup programs before and they were very difficult and I didn’t want to go through that again. But, I decided that today would be the day, that I would back up my computer…I subscribed to Backblaze. I trust your judgement, so thank you for your advice.”

Have you wondered, like Kathy did, if it would be complicated to set up Backblaze? Has it held you back from taking the leap to protect your files? I want you and our other readers and listeners to feel 100% confident in downloading this awesome back-up service. Here’s how to download Backblaze to your device in four easy steps.

  1. Click here to go to Backblaze and begin your free 15-day trial by clicking on “Try Free Trial.”Download Backblaze
  2. You will be asked to create an account using your email address and choosing a password. Once you have clicked “Start Backing Up,” a pop up window will appear and you can download Backblaze to your device.How to download Backblaze
  3. Next, another pop-up window will ask your permission to install Backblaze to your device. Click “Ok.”
  4. Wait patiently. Yet another pop-up window will appear and ask you to “Install.” Click “Install Now.” It may take several minutes depending on the speed of your internet connection.Download backblaze

You have now installed Backblaze and the back-up process has begun. You can continue to use your device normally as all your data is backing up.

How to Schedule Your Back-up Time

It is quick and easy to set up a time for Backblaze to back-up your data. By clicking on “Settings,” and then “Schedule,” you have the pull-down menu options of a continuous backup (this is the option Backblaze recommends, and the one I chose,) a daily backup, or “when I click <back up now>.” Choose whatever option is best for you and then click “Apply” and “Ok” at the bottom of the window. You are all set!

A Crucial Aspect of Your Genealogy Research

So, why did Kathy want cloud backup service? She says:

In 2013, we had a house fire and we lost everything but the clothes on our backs. I lost 30 years of genealogy, all my records and my genealogy library, plus all the ancestral photos that can never be replaced. I did have a back-up system, but it burnt right along with my computer. At first, I thought I would never do genealogy again. I would never be able to replace all that I had lost. It was costly enough to order all the birth, death, and marriage records the first time. There was no way I could do it again. I bought another computer and a copy of Family Tree Maker 2012 and decided that I would just work on some of the families that I was most interested in. I have very limited resources now, but I am enjoying trying to rebuild little bits of my tree. Thank you for all you do for the genealogy community. It is greatly appreciated.

My heart aches for Kathy’s loss. I hear stories like her’s far too often. I truly believe that backing up our precious genealogy data is a crucial (and underutilized) aspect of family history research. I hope her story will help to encourage others to start backing up today. I am so happy that many Gems, like Kathy, are now using Backblaze.

After doing my homework, I was proud to bring Backblaze on as the official backup of The Genealogy Gems Podcast. Please get the word out there to your favorite genies that Backblaze is an effective and cost-efficient way to save us from loss of our most important data. They’ll be thanking you!

More Gems on Backblaze

Set Sail from Norway to Australia: New and Updated Genealogical Records

New and updated genealogy collections from all around the world are just a click away! Sail your way from Norway across the Atlantic to the U.S. state of Michigan, then head across the Pacific to Korea and end your virtual voyage in Australia with the Victoria Passenger lists.

dig these new record collections

Norway Genealogy Records – Probate

FamilySearch has a new collection this week titled Norway, Probate Index Cards, 1640-1903. Only a small number (194,981) have been indexed. These are not digital images, but like the title says, it is an index.

These index cards were created by the regional archives in Norway. Not all regional archives created an index so, the collection does not cover all of Norway. FamilySearch has indexes for the following counties:

Friday_Post_Sept_2

  • Akershus
  • Aust-Agder
  • Buskerud
  • Hedmark
  • Oppland
  • Østfold
  • Rogaland
  • Telemark
  • Vest-Agder
  • Vestfold

Each index card may include the following:

  • Probate district
  • Volume (inclusive dates) and page number
  • Farm name
  • Parish
  • Date of probate
  • Name of the deceased & spouse
  • Name of children/heirs
  • Decision of the court

United States – Michigan – Oral Histories

The Ypsilanti Library has just launched their African American Oral History Archive. It’s been 40 years, but dozens of leaders of the Ypsilanti African American community were interviewed about their personal experiences during the Great Depression, WWII, and the Civil Rights movement. Now, these interviews are being digitized and will be made available online.

Although only one interview is available at this time, over the next 9 months, historians will be putting more of their stories online at the A.P. Marshall African American Oral History Archive website. You can enjoy the first interview with Eugene Beatty, a track athlete who nearly made the U.S. Olympic team in 1932, now.

In addition to interview recordings, the online archive will include a transcript with photographs of the subjects.

Korea – Civil Service Records and Genealogies

Wow! It has been a long time coming, but finally, we have two new database collections for Korea. FamilySearch.org has digitized over 2 million records for these collections. The Korea Collection of Genealogies, 1200-2014 was added this week and boasts family biographies, genealogies, and histories. The records are in Korean and Chinese, but for translation tools, see the section titled For Help Reading These Records.

These genealogies are not yet indexed, so you will need to use the browse feature we shared with you last month. You can read that article here.

The second collection for Korea is titled Korea Civil Service Examinations and Records of Officials and Employees, 1390-1900Korea_Record. This is a rather small collection of just over 4,000 records.

This collection will include records from Jeollabuk-do and Jeonju-si, South Korea. The records are in Korean and Chinese, dated from 1392 to 1910, and include Korean civil service examinations from the Joseon Dynasty.

The civil service examinations under the Joseon dynasty were known as the gwageo. These were very difficult tests  and central to education during the Joseon dynasty. The test assessed the applicant’s knowledge of Chinese classics and, occasionally, technical skills. Passing the test qualified the individual to enter into the higher governmental or aristocratic positions.

The civil service examination may contain some valuable information, such as:

  • Name of Employee
  • Date and Place of Birth
  • Names of Parents
  • Name of Spouse
  • Residence

Australia – Victoria – Passenger Lists

New from Findmypast, Victoria Coastal Passenger Lists 1852-1924 is the largest release of Australian records to date! These passenger lists cover the great Gold Rush and contains 3.3 million records. Both transcripts and digital images of the lists are found in the collection. Generally speaking, you will find the following information:

  • First and last name(s)
  • Sex, age, and birth year
  • Marital status
  • Occupation
  • Year of arrival
  • Ship name
  • Departure port and date
  • Arrival port and date

The early 1850s marked great gold discoveries in Australia. People immigrated to the area in masses to stake their claims. The population exploded and by 1871, 1.7 million people had immigrated to Victoria. Perhaps you always wondered what brought your family to Australia. This collection may finally provide the answer!

More Gems on New and Updated Genealogical Records

WorldCat Gets a Major Addition: New Genealogy Records Online this Week

England Emigrants and More: New Genealogy Records Online

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